The devil makes work for idle hands, but the past decade has seen several advances in voice-recognition software that aim to ensure our mouths rather than hands do the talking when using a PC or smartphone.

The transition from hand to mouth hasn’t been particularly smooth. For too long operating your phone with fingers and thumbs has been preferable to repeatedly articulating “Call John” into a hands-free set that then calls Tom, Dom or even mum.

Times have changed, and a huge leap in voice-recognition software means that what once was cumbersome is now cutting-edge. Now heralded as one of the fastest-growing areas in technology, vocal-command software has transcended from individual devices to smartphones and computers.

Advances in Bluetooth technology have propelled some of this progression – at least in hands-free devices. No longer are we reliant on yelling into a microphone attached to a flimsy cord in order to reach our contacts. Instead, state-of-the-art earpieces are easily synched with, say, a mobile phone.

And whereas a headset’s use was once restricted to dealing with incoming and outgoing calls, today’s headset offers many more useful services. We recently reviewed the Plantronics M1100, for example, which enables hands-free aficionados to update their Facebook status, post a Tweet to Twitter and even dictate email messages.

Smartphones have also joined the technological furore with a host of apps geared toward voice commands. The antiquated times of ‘voice training’ are over, and these sophisticated apps are able to learn your verbal quirks and accent. Such services are available in the form of Siri for iPhone, Vlingo, Nuance and Microsoft’s own ‘Tell Me’. Here, we look at voice-recognition software on a PC.

Get more from your PC with Dragon NaturallySpeaking

Step 1. Once you’ve installed Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 voice-recognition software, it pays to spend a bit of time getting to grips with how it works. The Profile Creation wizard will automatically pop up the first time you launch the program. Click New profile to get started.

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Step 2. To help it learn the tone of your voice, Dragon will ask a series of questions relating to your age, region, microphone type and accent. Be honest: you may think you’ve lost that Irish twang since moving from Dublin, but indicating its possible influence helps the software learn how you pronounce your words.

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Step 3. Now to test the quality of your volume and audio. Read aloud the text shown onscreen. Dragon will let you know when it has heard enough and adjust the volume accordingly. Next up is the audio check, to ascertain the quality of your microphone. This takes just a few seconds, and you’ll hear a beep when it’s finished.

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Step 4. Choose one of the training text options (Kennedy’s inaugural speech was our favourite) and read it aloud in a clear, measured tone. The words turn grey as Dragon hears them. Using your normal everyday voice and volume will help the software recognise your tones in the future.

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Step 5. Honing Dragon’s accuracy is an important step. It performs a one-time scan of your existing emails/documents, adding your contacts and getting used to your vocabulary and writing style. You can then schedule accuracy tuning for language and acoustic optimisation. This takes time, so consider setting it to run overnight.

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Step 6. Dragon’s Vocabulary Editor lets you add new and edit existing entries. This is useful for adding place names the software may not recognise, as well as products, company names or institutions and contacts with unusual surnames. Any slang can be personalised and formatted here, which will save time later.

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Step 7. One of the most common pairings of NaturallySpeaking is with Microsoft Word. Here, a staggering number of actions can be called up and carried out via a voice command, including transcription, requesting a word count, inserting a page break, opening and closing documents, and saving your work.

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Step 8. Shortcuts let you launch a program or task, even if you’re already working on something else. Say “Email Jack Rouss” to bring up a blank message in Outlook, or “Search”, followed by a keyword, to begin surfing the web. You’ll be able to while away hours on the internet, without lifting a finger.

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